A Memorable Panama Canal Christmas Cruise Aboard the Amsterdam

We live in California and two of our best friends reside in Florida. We wanted to visit them during the holidays, but didn’t want to endure the stress and aggravation of crowded airports and airplanes – so an opportunity to sail from nearby San Francisco to Ft. Lauderdale through the Panama Canal was especially appealing.

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Our cruise was an anomaly for a Holland America Panama Canal Cruise because the usual port of embarkation for the Canal trip is San Diego. However, it was our good fortune that the Amsterdam had been in dry-dock in San Francisco for a two-week spruce-up before our cruise.

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That meant a few hundred lucky passengers got to see the dramatic glow of the San Francisco skyline during departure – we picked up the majority of the passengers for the Panama Canal Cruise two-days later in San Diego.

Size matters

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Our last few cruises were on much larger ships, those with capacities over 2,500, so a ship that holds 1,380 passengers and a crew of 607 felt compact, and just a little cozier because of it.

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The first thing we noticed upon boarding the Amsterdam is that her color schemes are nicely subdued and her décor is a bit more refined than found on some of the newer ships. Of course, being a member of the Holland America fleet, she is elegant and uber-clean.

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At the heart of the Amsterdam is the Planeto Astrolabium, a magnificent three-story structure that tracks constellations, and the planets.

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The Planeto Astrolabium is also the ship’s hub for customer service activities, and the area to find a bevy of nearby exclusive shops.

Cruising in comfort

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The Amsterdam’s suites are sophisticated and chic.

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They are comfortable, classically elegant,

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and successfully avoid being trendy and thematic.

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They also reflect the natural allure of privacy at sea in graceful surroundings.

Repeat cruisers

We learned very quickly that many of our fellow passengers were not disembarking along with us in Florida. Rather, they were continuing on for the 114-day round-the-world cruise. The Grand World Voyage itinerary is sailed by the Amsterdam, and a stalwart group of Holland America loyalists make the annual voyage. We did a story about one charming lady who is among those habitual world cruisers, and you can read about her *here.*

For those interested, the 2015 Grand World Voyage begins on January 5th and departs from Ft. Lauderdale, Florida.

Cruise included holidays

Our trip encompassed both Christmas and New Year’s Day.

By Christmas Day passengers and crew alike were in a festive mood – a wonderful holiday spirit that was most evident at the crew’s inspirational holiday program entitled “The Sounds of Christmas Carols.” Hundreds of passengers genially joined in the crew’s evening group-sing.

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The merriment continued right through an impressive shipboard New Year’s Eve celebration at sea.

The seasonal gatherings aboard the Amsterdam helped form a genuine bond between passengers and crew – all from different countries, cultures, religions, and life experiences – quite marvelous to be part of it.

An amazing crew

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The staff on Holland America ships hail mostly from Indonesia and the Philippines, but on our cruise there were also crew members from 32 other nations. All were accommodating and friendly – a sure sign they were happy at their work, and with their employer, Holland America.

Meet the Captain

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Like all the other ship’s Masters we have interviewed, Captain Fred Everson set his sights on a life at sea from a very early age – he had a great mentor – his father was a captain on cargo ships. He subsequently attended and graduated from Holland’s maritime academy in Rotterdam, and joined HAL in 1980.

Everson told us, “My main concern as the Captain of the Amsterdam is the safety and pleasure of my passengers.” The captain informed us that Holland America has installed and is now testing the first thermal imaging system designed to immediately detect a person who may accidentally fall overboard.

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When asked what he likes best about his job, Captain Everson answered, “It offers me an opportunity to see the world.” His professed favorite place is Antarctica, “I love the remote grandeur, topography, and animal life.”

With a work schedule of 3 months on and 3 months off, Captain Everson has ample time to indulge in his favorite pastime – motorcycle trips from his home base in Del Ray Beach, Florida. He has logged over 150,000 miles on motorcycle tours of North America.

When Captain Everson retires he plans to continue touring, “There’s so much I haven’t seen.” A few years back the captain purchased an RV to assist him in his roaming. Happy motoring Captain!

Eating aboard the Amsterdam

We found the quality and presentation of food aboard the Amsterdam to be up to the usually delicious Holland America standards.

La Fontaine Restaurant

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The main dining room is the two-story La Fontaine Restaurant and is well designed with numerous windows for abundant natural light during day-time meals.

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Our table was next to one of the windows so we enjoyed constant vistas of the sky and sea while dining.

Lido Restaurant

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Many of our breakfasts were taken at the informal buffet-style Lido Restaurant,

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where we savored made-to-order omelets and a wide variety of meats, cheeses, cereals and fresh fruit and juices.

Specialty Restaurants

The Canaletto has introduced a new menu featuring Italian family style dining with some toothsome recipes.

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We relished our starter of Vermouth Braised Clams with spicy chorizo, garlic and basil.

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The Rigatoni with Italian sausage, Kalamata olives, and a spicy and delicious tomato sauce was a perfect pasta choice.

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The large plate entrée was a tasty Grilled Lemon-Thyme White Sea Bass with roasted fingerling potatoes, shaved fennel, and orange-olive salad.

Everything was delicious, however we found it unusual that no breads or rolls were served at the Canaletto, an Italian restaurant. Perhaps that has changed – we hope.

The best steaks and seafood

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The Pinnacle Grill is romantic and intimate and the favorite rendezvous of beef and seafood lovers. We were happy to learn that Holland American serves only seafood caught in a sustainable manner.

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A Caesar Salad prepared at the table was an excellent opener,

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followed by Dungeness Crab Cakes with spiraled shaved cucumber and sweet chili-mustard sauce. Outstanding!

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The filet mignon was a perfect size for a four-course dinner and was prepared with sun-dried tomatoes, and the master chef’s green peppercorn béarnaise sauce and maître d’ garlic butter.

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We finished with Baked Alaska a la Ben and Jerry’s Cherry Garcia ice cream flamed with Bing cherries jubilee. OMG!

Terrace Grill

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After shamelessly feasting for days on end, it was nice to occasionally take a breather and enjoy a simple old-fashioned hamburger, hot dog, or slice of pizza. The Terrace Grill poolside was a welcome, albeit brief departure from lavish dining. May we recommend an ice-cold beer for accompaniment?

About the cruise itinerary

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Our Panama Canal voyage on the Amsterdam started on December 18, and took 17 days, and covered 5,914 miles. The same trip was an arduous 13,715 miles before the advent of the 50-mile long Panama Canal.

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The Amsterdam stopped at six countries between San Diego and Ft. Lauderdale. Ports included Puerto Vallarta, Mexico; Puerto Quetzal, Guatemala; Corinto, Nicaragua; Puerto Caldera, Costa Rica; Cartagena, Columbia; and Georgetown, Cayman Islands.

The ports we favored were Cartagena, and Georgetown, but of course, the highlight of the cruise was passing through the historic Panama Canal.

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In a future article we will write about all the ports of call on the Holland America Panama Canal Cruise and include a summary of the exciting history of the Panama Canal.

An all-day event

It takes about eight-hours to transit the canal’s three locks and navigate the lake that lies between the locks and seas.

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The passengers were up at the crack of dawn to watch the Amsterdam approach the first lock,

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and be tethered to the electric locomotives that guided her seemingly effortlessly through the narrow Miraflores Locks.

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Once the Amsterdam was released from the second locks into Gatun Lake, passengers had several hours to observe the dark and mysterious waters and dense sweltering tropical jungle from on-high aboard the ship.

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Everyone watched as the liner glided along patches of small uninhabited tangled green islands – all safely visible from the glass enclosed and air-conditioned lounges and public spaces on the Amsterdam.

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Our minds wandered and considered the lives of the thousands of diggers who suffered (an estimated 25,000 died) to conquer this hostile wilderness for the betterment of mankind. How fortunate we are to be able to witness the engineering marvel they created.

Check out the related video below for a brief depiction of the passage.

by HollandAmericaFan

Don’t miss it

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A trip through the Panama Canal is one of the most interesting cruises on this planet. We recommend it highly.

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For more information about Holland America cruises, itineraries, and specials, look at their website at www.hollandamerica.com

Happy travels!

© Travels with Wayne and Judy Bayliff

Photos © Judy Bayliff

You can see the world with Google Maps. http://maps.google.com/

Exploring the Amenities Aboard the Nieuw Amsterdam

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Holland America has been building  great ships for cruise vacations for 138 years. The ms Nieuw Amsterdam is no exception.

In our last article, we wrote about the four ships that have proudly borne the name ms Nieuw Amsterdam. We also reviewed the many on-board dining options available to passengers.

Today, we complete our story by listing a multitude of other on-board amenities. We also want to give prospective cruisers some insight into a ship’s crew – and how they contribute to a memorable cruise.

Exploring the ship

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Starting at the top – on deck eleven – there is an Observation Room with a forward-looking 180-degree vista.

Library Lounge

At this location, there is a coffee bistro, a bar, and an excellent library, with books, newspapers, and magazines.

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There is also an Internet Café, game tables, and numerous easy chairs.

One deck down, Club HAL (Holland America Line) provides supervised entertainment for the 3 to 12 set. The Loft is not far away and is a comfortable lounge where teenagers can meet and mingle, and play age related games. The Loft’s unique New York design is complete with street signs, a Yellow Cab, and a Hot Dog Stand.

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There is a fully equipped Fitness Center and Spa and Salon on deck nine where you can completely immerse your mind and body into a retrofit, or just rejuvenate and relax.

If you are tired from a hard day at sea, enjoy a movie in the ship’s 36-seat Screening Room – on deck three – and, it’s complete with cushy-chairs and free fresh and delicious popcorn.

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Also on deck three, and after your workout or spa-treatment, you might like a go at upscale shopping in the ship’s Signature Shops

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or try your luck at the slot machines and gaming tables in the glittering Casino on deck two.

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If you like to cook, the Food and Wine magazine Culinary Arts Center on deck two will be a big hit. There you will find a state-of-the-art demonstration kitchen where gourmet-cooking lessons are provided by celebrity food preparers and the ship’s own master chefs.

Digital Workshop

Elsewhere on deck two, computer aficionados can take free lessons in the Digital Workshop powered by Microsoft Windows. Holland America’s Microsoft trained “techsperts,” will demonstrate photo editing tricks, and provide participants with general computer tips in an interactive classroom setting. Computers are provided.

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As the sun goes down, many of the day activity rooms magically morph into exciting cabarets, and like the other lounges situated throughout the ship, many offer passengers the opportunity to dance the night away.

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While on board, you can view and purchase your captured exploits at the ship’s extensive photo gallery on deck three, and don’t miss the fine art gallery where treasures are for sale and auction.

If for some reason you would prefer to spend your ocean holiday in your stateroom, you might enjoy a long soak in your cabin’s tub and pamper yourself with the provided Elemis bath amenities. After a slow dry with a plush Egyptian cotton towel, slip into a waiting deluxe terry cloth robe. You might then pop one of the thousand or so ship’s library DVDs into your flat panel wide-screen TV.

To complement your relaxation and entertainment, may we suggest a beverage from the mini-bar and a snack or full meal from the complimentary room service menu. La bonne vie! 

Shore Excursions

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Holland America has an extensive array of port tours for passenger enjoyment. A good reason to avail oneself of on-board tour booking is safety. Another is that the contracted operators know when you need to be back at the ship for departure. Yes, it can happen. 

Live entertainment on board

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We have been on many cruises, and after awhile the stage productions on cruise ships tend to do a mental merge – but not on this cruise on the Nieuw Amsterdam.

Group ensemble performers on cruise ships are selected randomly and put under various length contracts as individuals – which means, they work with many different people in the course of their engagements at sea.

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Laura Parkes and other performers answer guest questions

The assembled performers in the stage productions on our Nieuw Amsterdam sailing were absolutely the best we have ever seen. The dancers and singers on board were exceptional to a person. Their physical attributes and artistic talent were well above what you would find on the average cruise.

Kudos to the HAL talent scouts responsible for bringing this amazing group together. Sorry, we have no pictures of the group in action. Photography of stage performances is not permitted for legal and safety reasons.

One possible explanation for the quality of the talent is that unlike some other lines, HAL does not require double-duty from its performers. That means you will not see professional artists performing “welcome aboard duty,” or running daily bingo. Cruises that require artists to do something other than perform tend to attract less experienced talent.

We took a particular interest in a vocalist named Laura Parkes. She has a fantastic range and superb stage presence. Laura hails from England. She has been performing on the cruise ship circuit for several years as a lead production vocalist, and aspires to Las Vegas Cabaret. If any of our readers are connected in Las Vegas, Laura could be your greatest find – drop us an email.

theater

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All this talent was supported by the ship’s backstage hands at the Showroom at Sea. This beautiful theater spans two decks, and the seats are most comfortable. The stage-sets in the Showroom were brilliant, and the costumes were professional, chic, and alluring. The Nieuw Amsterdam has the best of all of it. 

Service Maximum

A cruise ship is basically a floating resort hotel. Therefore, it only makes sense that the majority of shipboard employees would report to the Hotel Manager – who in turn reports to the Captain. At the time of our sailing, there were 868 crewmembers aboard the Nieuw Amsterdam. 756 of them reported to the Hotel Manager.

When we spoke to Mark Zeller, the amiable Hotel Manager aboard the Nieuw Amsterdam, we asked why he thought his ship was so well received by his passenger guests. He replied without hesitation, “It’s the quality of the crew.”

There are dozens of countries represented in the ship’s complement, but the vast majority of the service personnel come from Indonesia, Bali, and the Philippines – all countries whose people have reputations for being gracious, outgoing, and caring.

We found Mr. Zeller’s pride in his staff to be highly warranted, as the crew of the Nieuw Amsterdam was particularly delightful and friendly. We were not surprised to discover that Holland America has recruiting centers and training schools in both Indonesia and the Philippines.

Crew members aboard cruise ships work hard and are away from their families for long stretches. Typically, they sign on for a ten-month tour, and may rotate their assignments on several ships during their sea-going careers.

 Captain on the bridge

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Captain Jonathan Mercer

There is a common misconception that all Masters on Holland America’s ships are Dutch. Maybe they were at one time, but not now. Our cruise was under the able-command of  Captain Jonathan Mercer, who hails from Britain, and now resides in Florida with his American wife.

Captain Mercer is one of the most personable and visible ship’s Master that we have encountered during our many years at sea – meaning he was frequently out-and-about chatting it up with the guests in his domain – all of whom seemed delighted by the attention.

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We had a stimulating interview with the Captain, and we think it would be hard to find a better ambassador for Holland America.

In closing

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A few interesting facts about the ship. The Nieuw Amsterdam weights 86,273 tons, and is 936 feet long. She has 1,056 staterooms, and a crew of approximately 900. She can desalinate 500,000 gallons of potable water per day, and she consumes 75 gallons of diesel fuel per nautical mile. Her maximum speed is 24 knots or 27.62 miles per hour. 

If you go

For more information about cruising on the Nieuw Amsterdam or any one of Holland America’s elegant ships, go to their website at www.hollandamerica.com or call your favorite travel agent.

We had a delightful flight from New York to Europe on Aer Lingus.

Happy travels!

© Travels with Wayne and Judy Bayliff

Photos © Wayne and Judy Bayliff

You can see the world with Google Maps. http://maps.google.com/

Vacationing Aboard Holland America’s Nieuw Amsterdam

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The ms Nieuw Amsterdam is first and foremost a high-caliber floating resort. It was designed to appeal to both first time cruisers and well-seasoned cruise veterans – it has everything the sea faring vacationer could desire. 

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We booked a 20-day passage on the Nieuw Amsterdam. The itinerary included ports in Italy, Monaco, Spain, and Portugal before heading across the Atlantic for the ship’s repositioning to Florida for its winter schedule in the Caribbean. It was a fabulous cruise.

This is the fourth Nieuw Amsterdam

In 1626, Dutch settlers named their new-world Atlantic colony “Nieuw Amsterdam.” It was not until the Dutch turned the island over to the British in 1664 that it became New York.

Holland America Line (HAL) was founded in 1872. In 1906, HAL began a tradition of honoring the old-Dutch colony and launched the first ms Nieuw Amsterdam cruise ship. That first namesake served until 1932.

In 1937, at a time of growing global unrest, the second Nieuw Amsterdam was christened. Like other great cruise-liners including the Queen Mary, the new Nieuw Amsterdam was conscripted to military service early in WWII. After the war – having served admirably in the conflict – she was again outfitted for cruise service and fulfilled that charter until 1974.

The third ms Nieuw Amsterdam was an instant hit when it began its Rotterdam to New York run in 1983. For 20-years, she was recognized as an elegant star by ocean-going celebrities in ports around the world. After a life of uncompromising reputation and service, she was sold in 2003 to make room for the current ms Nieuw Amsterdam.

Homage well paid

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The Nieuw Amsterdam is a fitting tribute to New York City. Its passageways, lounges, and public rooms are filled with nostalgic artistic renditions and iconic images depicting historical, social, and multi-cultural aspects of The Big Apple – there is even a seven-foot shiny aluminum apple that welcomes exiting elevator passengers on the Port Deck. 

Speaking of elevators

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Many contemporary cruise ships have glass elevators in the interior of the ship’s atrium. The Nieuw Amsterdam also has four outside glass-enclosed elevators – an interesting novelty – and lots of fun as they zip up eleven decks and provide ocean views on the way to the ship’s spacious Observation Deck. 

Always a lady

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Walking the decks of the Nieuw Amsterdam is a visual delight. She is outfitted in gleaming chrome and deep rich tones of red and tinges of other subtle hues. Call it understated elegance, or simply chic – in any case she is entirely comfortable. 

An unexpected test at sea

We boarded the ms Nieuw Amsterdam in Barcelona. During our first night at sea we encountered gale winds upwards of 80-miles per hour and 25 foot sea swells. Our balcony stateroom was on Deck 5, and we experienced drifting rushes of spray on our glass door throughout the evening.

The Nieuw Amsterdam listed occasionally and slightly from the starboard battering of the storm, but rode the waves like the 86,273-ton technical marvel she was designed to be. There was little discomfort among the 2,016 passengers and 868 crew members.

During that first night’s gale, and during much better days thereafter, our veranda stateroom was quiet and we could hear neither the wind outside nor our neighbors on either side of our stateroom. There was the occasional door slamming along the passageway, but even that sound was so muted as to not be disturbing. We heard no other noises, and nary a squeak. She is a well-put together craft. 

The staterooms

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The staterooms are of comparatively good size, and the addition of the Holland America tub shower in the bathroom will appeal to those who enjoy a good soak, and those who need a little extra room. If you cannot easily navigate over the side of a tub, you can request a cabin with the more traditional cruise-ship shower stall. 

Tempting your inner gourmet

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The Nieuw Amsterdam has a dazzling array of eating venues to satisfy every palate. As You Wish® dining on all HAL cruises means guests can chose from a wide selection of dining times and eating places.

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There’s the two-level Manhattan Dining Room that is open for breakfast, lunch, and dinner. This is the main dining room and appeals to those wanting a more formal dining affair.

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On the other end of the spectrum is the Lido Restaurant on Deck 9, where comfort food and ethnic/regional dishes from around the world are all offered up buffet style. Self-seating ocean view tables are always available at the Lido.

Casual table service is available at the adjacent Canaletto restaurant, which specializes in delectable Italian cookery.

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There are two poolside walk-ups near the Lido Restaurant. The Terrace Grill serves hot dogs, burgers, paninis, pita sandwiches, and fries. The Slice is a poolside stand that serves up piping hot pizza by the slice or whole pie – with your choice of toppings.

Guests can also enjoy their food selections along-side one of the two swimming pools on the Lido Deck. There are open seating tables, and if so inclined, private cabanas. There are also bars at both locations.

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The larger Lido Pool has three hot tubs, and the entire area is covered by a retractable dome, which is open in fair weather and closed in foul. The aft Sea View Pool provides reflections of where you have been as well as the ship’s wake. Holland America thinks of everything. 

Specialty Restaurants

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We also had the pleasure of dining in the Nieuw Amsterdam’s specialty restaurants, the Pan-Asian Tamarind

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and the Pinnacle Grill, specializing in steaks and seafood. There is a nominal charge for each guest at both of these reservations-only restaurants. The food is excellent at all the ship’s eateries, but these two choices are truly special.

The Pinnacle Grill features Sterling Silver Beef® and fresh seafood served on Bvlgari® china, Riedel® stemware, and Frette® linens and is well worth the money for a quiet evening of fine dining, or for celebrating a special event. 

Of course, if none of the above is appealing, there is always the complimentary 24-hour room service menu.

In our next article, we will reveal many more of the gratifying features and amenities that Holland America has thoughtfully included on the Nieuw Amsterdam. We will also give our readers some insight into the personalities of the Captain, Crew, and Entertainers that were part of the launch of this beautiful high-seas resort.

For more information about the ms Nieuw Amsterdam or any of the other Holland America Line ships, check out their website at www.hollandamerica.com or contact your favorite travel agent.

We had a delightful flight from New York to Europe on Aer Lingus.
Happy travels!

© Travels with Wayne and Judy Bayliff

Photos © Wayne and Judy Bayliff

You can see the world with Google Maps. http://maps.google.com/